To say the Orange had their backs against the wall would be an understatement. Before Wednesday, Syracuse had lost three straight -- all by less than six points. Against Duke, SU trailed by eight at the break and appeared all but destined to slip to a fourth straight loss, this one at the hands of the hottest team in the country. It would have been an acceptable loss, mostly because it was expected.
But the Orange fought until the end, trading the lead with the No. 10 team in the country and coming up with a dramatic winner to keep their NCAA Tournament hopes alive. The shot also ended Duke’s seven-game winning streak.
Here are three takeaways:
1. Both teams played like their NCAA tournament hopes depended on it
It was Syracuse, not Duke, which was battling for its NCAA Tournament life -- though you would have never guessed that if you didn’t know it. This was a good, old fashioned brawl between two really good teams, coached by legendary Hall of Famers. When Jim Boeheim and Mike Krzyzewski go toe-to-toe, anything goes. Even buzzer-beating bank shots.
From the jump, the Orange applied the pressure on Duke. A loss would have likely sealed SU’s fate. After losing three straight, this was as much of a must-win as any Syracuse has had all season. So the home team had everything to gain but a whole heck of a lot to lose. The Orange played with a high level of energy on defense, with SU’s infamous zone forcing eight turnovers and, most importantly, clogging the lane to pressure Duke into 33 3-point attempts, of which the Devils only made 10.
What was surprising was Duke and its effort despite a seven-game win streak. The Blue Devils could have come out in cruise control, and after playing five straight games down to the wire, no one would have been too shocked. Instead, they played with a sense of urgency that rivaled Cuse. With the ACC title still up for grabs, Duke played like it could smell it. And the Devils didn’t go down without a tough fight.
Grayson Allen, a preseason National Player of the Year candidate, has seen his role shrink dramatically. That change, in large part, is because of the meteoric rise of freshman Jayson Tatum, who was once again electric with 19 points against Syracuse.
Look, Duke knows what it has in Luke Kennard. Not only is he the best, most consistent scorer on the team, he’s likely earned a spot among the top player of the year candidates. But it’s been a bit of a revolving door this season for the second scoring option behind Kennard.
Allen had plenty of chances to step up Wednesday, taking 11 shots and playing his usual aggressive brand of ball. But he wasn’t able to get any type of rhythm rolling until late, finishing with eight points on 2-of-11 shooting.
Meanwhile, Tatum opened with 14 points and 10 rebounds in the first 20 minutes, and finished with a cool 19 points and team-high 13 rebounds and six assists.
Tatum continues to slowly build on his game, with his versatility to play above, around, beside and beyond the rim proving more and more difficult to stop. As a 6-foot-10 athlete, he has the outside game of a point guard with the physicality of a power forward. It’s scary how much he’s grown over the last month during Duke’s most impressive run of the season.
3. Duke’s ACC titles hopes are likely shot
Before Wednesday, Duke was squarely in the mix for the ACC title. Despite a January skid, the Blue Devils were still 10-4 in the league and one game behind North Carolnia with a head-to-head against UNC looming to close out the regular season.
Coupled with UNC’s win over Louisvile, Syracuse may have ended any chance Duke had of taking the ACC regular-season crown.
It’s not unrealistic to think Duke can win all three, but those are all likely NCAA Tournament teams. And winning on the road in the ACC is tough. North Carolina hasn’t given up one at the Dean Dome all year. So barring a disastrous fall from the Tar Heels and another Duke win streak to close out the season, this upset from the Orange all but sealed a regular-season crown for Roy Williams’ Heels.